Journalism in the Public Interest

The Best Reporting on What’s Wrong with Congress

As the Senate tries to fix the filibuster, we’ve rounded up the best stories on the dysfunction in Congress.

We've rounded up the best stories on the dysfunction in Congress. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in 2011, we rounded up some of the best stories about the 112th Congress, the least productive in decades. Since then, things seem to have gotten even worse. The 113th Congress is just three weeks old, and 82 percent of Americans already disapprove of it — the highest percentage for a new Congress since The New York Times and CBS News began asking the question two decades ago.

As Senate leaders claim to have reached a deal to reform the filibuster — a key source of congressional dysfunction this past term — we’ve rounded up the best new reporting on what’s wrong with Congress:

Let’s Talk, The New Yorker ($), January 2013

Ezra Klein details the history of the filibuster — from its origins in 1806 to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s filibuster of his own bill in December — and the current efforts to reform it. “No President in American history has seen his initiatives filibustered with anything even approaching the frequency with which the tactic has been used against Obama,” he writes. “If not for the filibuster, the Affordable Care Act would include a public option, the stimulus would have been hundreds of billions of dollars larger and a plan to cap and trade carbon emission would likely have passed the Senate.”

The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock, The New York Times, November 2012

Republican filibusters aren’t the only thing clogging up the Senate. Democrats have used a combative maneuver known as “filling the tree” more than 20 times in each of the last three sessions of Congress.

Call Time for Congress Shows How Fundraising Dominates Bleak Work Life, The Huffington Post, January 2013

Two Huffington Post reporters got their hands on a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee PowerPoint for freshmen representatives. It includes a “model daily schedule” that suggests devoting four hours a day to “call time” — i.e., time on the phone with donors — and another hour to “strategic outreach,” which includes fundraisers. That leaves only three to four hours a day “designated for the actual work of being a member of Congress — hearings, votes, and meetings with constituents.”

As Ezra Klein points out, all that fundraising leaves little time for things such as, say, having lunch with your colleagues. “We’re not here on Mondays,” Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, told Klein. “Tuesday is the party caucuses. Thursday’s the policy lunch and Friday you’re out of here. So that only leaves Wednesday. And what are people doing Wednesday? They’re out raising money. Everybody’s at a fundraiser. I mean, so there is no time any longer for these lunches that we used to have.”

Group from Congress Asks, Why Does America Hate Us? (Answer: See Congress), The New York Times, January 2013

A dozen members of Congress met in New York last week to discuss, among other things, why a recent poll rated them worse than cockroaches and colonoscopies. They’re members of a new bipartisan group called No Labels, which aims to address Congressional dysfunction. Many of them are newly elected and, upon arriving in Washington, “had the same reaction as their constituents to the workings of Congress: they were appalled.” “We are incentivized to do crazy things,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat.

Shift on Executive Power Lets Obama Bypass Rivals, The New York Times, April 2012

When Obama was a senator and a presidential candidate, he criticized President George W. Bush for sidestepping Congress. But in the final year of his first term, Obama, frustrated with Congress’s lack of action, exercised his executive power to do everything from raising fuel economy standards to halting deportations of illegal immigrants who came to the country as children. Republicans have accused him of abusing his power, especially with regard to his recent executive orders on gun violence.

Outgoing Congress Proves to Be Unproductive to the End, The Washington Post, December 2012

How productive was Congress last year? “It’s been like watching paint dry,” said Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican. The 112th Congress passed fewer bills than any Congress in decades — failing, among other things, to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act or pass a much-needed farm bill.

14 Reasons Why This Is the Worst Congress Ever, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, July 2012

The 112th Congress may not have passed many laws, but the House found time to vote to repeal the president’s health care law at least 33 times. They also managed to be the most polarized Congress since Reconstruction, according to one study, and gave up on passing budgets. To top it off, Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, blocked the nomination to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors of Peter Diamond, who had recently won a Nobel prize in economics. Diamond was never confirmed.

Deeply Riven Congress to Recess Again, Just for Politics, The Boston Globe, September 2012

Congress took a five-week break this summer, returned for eight days and recessed again. During that time, they managed to pass a continuing resolution that will keep the government running until March 27. But Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who has since retired, wasn’t impressed. “I don’t consider that a great accomplishment,” he said. “That would be like getting points for breathing.”

The Empty Chamber, The New Yorker, August 2010

OK, we included George Packer’s piece about the Senate in our last roundup, too. But it’s still the best account of how the chamber works these days: “In general, when senators give speeches on the floor, their colleagues aren’t around, and the two or three who might be present aren’t listening. They’re joking with aides, or emailing Twitter ideas to their press secretaries, or getting their first look at a speech they’re about to give before the eight unmanned cameras that provide a live feed to C-SPAN2.”

With Olympia Snowe’s Retirement, the Center Crumbles, Politico, February 2012

The Senate lost three of its few remaining moderates when the 112th Congress ended this month: Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican; Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat; and Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina — not a moderate, but occasionally a maverick — blamed the Senate’s dysfunction for driving them out. “The sense is that the body has sort of lost its way, and ‘Do I want to spend six more years if I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel?’” Graham said. “I guess what Olympia’s telling us is that she doesn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Five Obscure Tactics to Snarl Congress, The Boston Globe, June 2012

Think fixing the filibuster will fix the Senate? Creative senators could use other procedural moves — such as fleeing the Capitol to keep the Senate from achieving quorum or using a “layover rule” to delay the vote on a bill for three days while it’s published and considered — to continue to gum up the works.

These are the guys that walk about with a flag in their lapel and call themselves “patriots”


the first priority of any politician/political party is to get into power.

the 2nd priority for any politician/political party, is to STAY in power

politicians/political parties, will do anything to achieve points one and two, whether ethical or unethical

political prioritization, once in power
a) take care of self
b) take care of party
c) take care of those providing monetary/key support
d) consider the needs of the voter

- for better or worse, in democracies such as ours, we, as complacent and disconnected voters, have the right to choose the levels of incompetence, corruption, lying, hypocrisy and waste that we prefer

Errr…The filibuster is a method of protest, and the one method available when a terrible bill (like SOPA, for example) is poised to pass in a landslide.  That is absolutely, critically, not a “problem.”

Let’s be clear:  Reforming the filibuster says that minority views shouldn’t be given voice if the majority doesn’t want to hear it.

The problem with filibustering is that it’s never used to stop, say, the Patriot Act or the FISA Amendment extensions or laws that give the government the right to kidnap, indefinitely detain, torture, and murder American citizens.  The problem isn’t that Obama is being blocked, but that these same principles didn’t block Bush.

As to what’s wrong with Congress?  There are three major aspects.

First, because the size of Congress has been kept static for over a hundred years, each “Representative” claims to speak for about seven hundred thousand Americans.  If you want to put that into perspective, to get a bead on how important you are to your Representative, if he or she committed to speaking to every one of his or her constituents during the term, working 24/7 for the full two years, you’d get less than ninety seconds to pitch your story, twenty seconds, if we use normal office hours.

Second, even that twenty seconds is impossible, because our “Representatives” loiter in Washington and only come home to speak to their families.  Lobbyists have full access to them, while we might get someone on the staff to write down that we called or e-mailed.  In an age when almost anybody except a construction worker can pretty much work remotely without anybody noticing the difference, we make our politicians show up in person to work with other politicians.

Third, there’s no penalty for being wrong.  When Congress passed the bailouts in 2008 against everybody’s wishes, when they passed indefinite detention, when they sold us to the insurance companies and called it “care,” nobody investigates their actions (except maybe other Congressmen), nobody demands they step down, and nobody even makes sure everybody remembers this garbage when election time comes.

It also doesn’t help that Congress still gets a list of perks a mile long, plus a pension that they take in addition to whatever income they decide to earn, often exploiting laws that they had a hand in passing, like Al Gore’s sale of Current.  That just further serves to insulate them from the public they claim to serve and turn their navel-gazing idiocy into “principles.”

Oh, and there’s probably also a complete lack of education.  Anybody voting against raising the debt ceiling (especially after passing the budget) is either trying to crash the economy or doesn’t know what the debt ceiling actually is.  People who are proud of their ignorance on topics vote on stem cells, IP addresses, and all sorts of things without even the most basic explanation.  Heck, look how many politicians talk about “loopholes” in the taxes, as if they’re accidental constructs a smart person can discover in the law, rather than exemptions that were specifically written in.  It’s also shocking that the pro-corporation types are against ObamaCare, considering that it provides some of their biggest contributors an infinite money supply with little to no responsibility; the only explanation is that none of them have been told what the law says.

And lastly (did I say “three”?), the bills are a mile long.  My sense is that this started with the Patriot Act, but these multi-hundred-pagers need to go, because they’re obviously written with the intent to conceal.  Any law that doesn’t readably fit on an index card should be thrown out, plain and simple.  Again, you’d be surprised how many tax deductions arose because they’re on page forty of some unrelated law that nobody bothered to read.

(I’ll let slide the first item, for now, suggesting that Cap and Trade wouldn’t have enriched the financial firms at the expense of poor people.)

Theodoric Meyer

Jan. 25, 2013, 3:17 p.m.

Thanks for pointing out, John. It has been fixed.

“Republicans have accused him of abusing his power, especially with regard to his recent executive orders on gun violence.”

According to (, none of the President’s proposals are actually “executive orders”. If they are correct, then this wording should be changed.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Jan. 27, 2013, 10:57 a.m.

In the first article, Ezra Klein in the New Yorker (Jan 2013), said ” If not for the filibuster, the Affordable Care Act would include a public option, the stimulus would have been hundreds of billions of dollars larger, and a plan to cap and trade carbon emmissions would have likely passed the Senate.”

So, let’s see:  If not for the filibuster, socialized medicine would now be the Law of the Land; the deficit, which is already eating our lunch, would be eating our breakfast as well; and,finally, Al Gore, already an insufferable multi-millionaire, would be in insufferable multi-billionaire.

So, what’s so bad about the filibuster?

To be fair, Walter, a public option would’ve been far better than demanding we all become clients of the most abusive industry in the world under penalty of law and call it “care.”  All the drawbacks with none of the benefits.

For Congress, it’s all about their perverse twisting of the incentives and intent of laws and rules to match their fundraising schedules.

I believe in the filibuster, but most people have no idea that this clever little trick learned in 9th grade civics class has somehow morphed into an obstruction where you DON’T EVEN HAVE TO SHOW UP TO SPEAK.

Have campaigns publicly financed, overturn Citizen’s United, and outlaw lobbying (which is dominated by corporate and not citizens’ interests) and these perverse incentives will go away.  Simple.

There are so many ways to solve these problems in a very simple manner, but people with agendas (e.g., my fundraising time is more important than actually being present to filibuster), try their damnedest to screw up the system.

Here’s another one: if banks were forced to keep even a small percentage of mortgages on their books and were disallowed to sell them off if they originated them, we wouldn’t be in this financial crisis, because the risk to their establishment would negate the incentive to write subprime loans.  Done.

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